What Is PII Data Discovery & Why Is It Important

What Is PII Data Discovery & Why Is It Important

Understanding PII data  

Personally Identifiable Information (PII) is data that can uniquely identify an individual, such as an employee, a patient, or a customer. "Sensitive PII" refers to information that, if compromised, could pose a greater risk to the individual’s privacy and misuse of information for someone else’s gains. With numerous laws and regulations governing the collection, use, sharing, deletion, and security controls of PII data and sensitive PII, organizations must stay compliant amidst the continuous enactment of new laws.

Modern consumers are well-informed about the significance of their data, its potential misuse, and the consequences of its loss. Consequently, regulatory authorities are scrutinizing companies that rely on data collection. To navigate this complex landscape of regulations, organizations must ensure lawful and responsible data usage. Whether the purpose is data protection, governance, or regulatory compliance, it all starts with understanding the nature of sensitive data, its storage locations, security measures, and the relevant legal frameworks. This underscores the necessity for an effective PII data discovery tool to facilitate these efforts.  

Interesting read: How to conduct and effective data privacy risk assessment

What Is PII Data Discovery & Why It Is Important

PII data discovery refers to the process of identifying and locating Personally Identifiable Information (PII) within an organization's data repositories. PII is any information that can be used to identify a specific individual, either on its own or when combined with other data. Examples of PII include names, addresses, social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, financial information, and more.

Consider this scenario: In a marketing campaign, the sales team uses the lead data to convert prospects into paying customers, while the finance team uses the same data to process payments. Furthermore, the product marketing team uses the same data to send periodic product updates to customers.

In this particular example, each department processes the data differently, necessitating potential access to distinct pieces of personally identifiable information (PII). For instance, the finance team requires credit card data to process payments, while the email marketing team relies on customers' names and email addresses to send emails. Sales needs to know the customer's full address, and customer success requires complete product version and purchase history details. However, no single team requires access to all aspects of the data. This may result in the same data being replicated across various siloed databases throughout the organization, making it more difficult to protect personal and sensitive information.

Furthermore, the advent of hyper-scale cloud computing environments, such as Snowflake, has enabled effortless collaboration in the cloud. Employees across most organizations are empowered to access the cloud, perform petabyte-scale queries from various locations, resulting in the generation of vast amounts of data. It is projected that the cloud environment will contain over 100 zettabytes of data by 2025.

In a sense, this cloud data is scattered across multiple platforms and locations such as data lakes, databases, applications, and personal computers. This dispersion leads to a lack of visibility into the data's security posture or privacy compliance status, exposing companies to potential data breaches or compliance failures.

To address these concerns, the teams responsible for managing data privacy, , security, and compliance require seamless visibility and insights into the extent and usage of PII data. A sensitive data discovery tool can provide CISOs and DPOs with comprehensive visibility into the data and its security and compliance status.

Best Practices in PII Data Discovery

To achieve effective PII data protection, organizations must embrace best practices in PII data discovery. Let's explore the essential best practices that organizations should adopt to ensure the secure and responsible handling of PII data, safeguarding both their reputation and the trust of their customers.

  • Identify all data sources:  
    The first step in PII data discovery is to identify all the data sources within an organization. This includes databases, file servers, cloud storage, third-party systems, and any other repositories where sensitive information might reside. Creating a comprehensive inventory of data sources helps to ensure that no PII is overlooked during the discovery process.
  • Implement data classification:  
    Data classification involves categorizing data based on its sensitivity and criticality. This practice helps organizations prioritize their efforts and resources when discovering and protecting PII. By labeling data as public, internal, confidential, or sensitive, organizations can apply appropriate security measures and controls to safeguard PII effectively.
  • Data Mapping and Flow:  
    Understanding how PII moves through an organization's systems is crucial for effective sensitive data discovery. Data mapping involves documenting the flow of information, from its creation to its storage and eventual destruction. This process aids in identifying potential vulnerabilities and points of exposure where PII may be at risk.
  • Data Minimization:  
    To minimize the risk of exposure to sensitive PII, organizations should practice data minimization. This means collecting and retaining only the necessary personal information required for specific business purposes. Unnecessary storage of PII increases the potential for data breaches and compliance violations. Right to be forgotten has become necessary for compliance.
  • Consent and Transparency:  
    Obtaining explicit consent from individuals before collecting and processing their PII is a fundamental principle of data privacy. Informing users about the purposes and methods of data collection and usage helps build trust and compliance with data protection regulations.
  • Access Controls and Masking:  
    Implementing robust access controls ensures that only authorized personnel can access PII. Role-based access, multi-factor authentication, and encryption are some measures that help protect sensitive data from unauthorized access. Additionally, data masking techniques can be used to anonymize PII for certain purposes, reducing the exposure of real user information.
  • Regular Data Assessments:  
    Regularly assessing the organization's data handling practices and security measures is crucial to identify vulnerabilities and address potential weaknesses. PII data discovery or sensitive data discovery should be an ongoing process, adapting to changes in data storage, processing, and the threat landscape.
  • Staff Training and Awareness:  
    Ensuring that all employees are trained in data protection policies, best practices, and the importance of handling PII securely is essential. Employees are often the first line of defense against data breaches, and their awareness can significantly mitigate the risk of accidental or intentional data mishandling.
  • Incident Response and Notification:  
    Having a well-defined incident response plan is essential in the event of a data breach or security incident. The plan should outline the steps to be taken to mitigate the impact of the breach, including timely notifications to affected individuals and relevant authorities as required by data protection regulations.
  • Periodic Reviews and Updates:  
    Sensitive data discovery practices should be periodically reviewed and updated to reflect changes in data handling procedures, technological advancements, and regulatory requirements. Staying proactive and adaptive ensures that the organization maintains a robust PII data discovery and protection framework.
Also read: PII Compliance Checklist: Safeguard Your PII Data

How Protecto Can Help Simplify and Accelerate PII Data Discovery

In the era of data-driven enterprises operating in large-scale environments, an AI-driven, deep sensitive data discovery solution can provide a competitive advantage. Protecto offers a PII data discovery solution, enabling organizations to automate the identification and categorization of data assets and sensitive information across data sources.

Maintaining compliance and mitigating privacy risks have emerged as paramount concerns for businesses. Our platform empowers you to detect personally identifiable information (PII) and sensitive data, identify potential risks, preserve metadata, and implement data retention strategies, thereby ensuring privacy protection and achieving regulatory compliance.

Schedule a demo or sign up for a free trial today to learn how you can discover PII and sensitive data across the data stores and systems within your enterprise.

Frequently asked questions on PII data discovery

What is PII and why is it important?

PII, or personally identifiable information, refers to any data that can directly or indirectly identify an individual, such as names, addresses, social security numbers, email addresses, phone numbers, financial data, and biometric information. Understanding and safeguarding PII is crucial as it involves protecting individuals' privacy and preventing potential misuse of their personal information.

What is data discovery and classification?

Data discovery and classification involve the process of scanning the entire network, including file servers and hardware, to identify the locations of sensitive and regulated data. Essentially, data discovery enables businesses to locate, categorize, and monitor sensitive data, providing them with comprehensive visibility into the whereabouts of their data.

What is sensitive data discovery?

The process of sensitive data discovery involves identifying and locating sensitive data to ensure its protection or secure removal, eliminating any pieces of compromising information.

Why is PII data discovery important?

PII data discovery empowers businesses across diverse industries to unveil valuable insights, patterns, and trends from an array of data sources. These valuable findings enhance businesses in their day-to-day operations, enabling them to classify and protect data as well as make well-informed decisions that have a positive impact on the company.

How does PII data discovery help with regulatory compliance?

PII data discovery allows organizations to identify where sensitive data is stored, enabling them to implement appropriate security measures and comply with data protection regulations like GDPR, CCPA, or HIPAA.

How can organizations ensure the accuracy of PII data discovery processes?

Regular data audits, continuous monitoring, and periodic reviews of data handling procedures can help maintain the accuracy and effectiveness of PII data discovery efforts.

What are the potential risks of not conducting PII data discovery?

Failing to discover and protect PII can lead to data breaches, legal liabilities, reputational damage, financial losses, and non-compliance with data protection laws, resulting in severe consequences for the organization.

Is PII data discovery a one-time process, or should it be regularly repeated?

PII data discovery should be an ongoing process, especially as new data is generated, and existing data is modified or moved. Regularly repeating the discovery process ensures continuous data protection and compliance.

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